“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Christian Nationalism
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 21, 2021
5th Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-2, Exodus 20:1-5a, Matthew 22:36-40
This morning we continue the Lenten sermon series, “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us,” and once again, I invite you to join me for Holy Conversations via Zoom tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. to talk and to pray with others who are seekers of God’s wisdom. Now, we turn our attention to the issue of Christian Nationalism. In recent conversations with many of you and with others I hold dear, I have sensed a shared concern for the future of our country. Some of us worry that we are headed toward socialism in which production, distribution, and exchange are owned or regulated by the community as a whole. Some are concerned about fascism defined as a form of totalitarian or authoritarian government in which most of a nation’s power is held by one ruler. Others have expressed various other concerns. While we may differ in how we imagine things playing out in the years ahead, many of us seem to agree that our democracy—a government designed to be for the people by the people—is in trouble.
One threat that has been debated and written widely about in recent years is Christian Nationalism. With all the ink that has been spilled, you would think that defining it would be a cinch. Not so. But I will do my best in the short time allotted. In an article in “Christianity Today,” Paul Miller, professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, defines Christian nationalism by contrasting it with Christianity. Christianity is a religion, a set of beliefs drawn from the Bible and certain creeds about ultimate things like life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In contrast, Christian nationalism is a political ideology about American identity, a set of instructions for what the nationalists believe the American government should do. Instead of being drawn from the Bible, Christian nationalism is a cultural framework built on a collection of myths, symbols, and narratives. It idealizes a fusion of Christianity with American civic life. It dangerously appeals to tribal instincts, suggesting we are “a chosen race,” while denying the universal nature of God’s love.
When I hear the phrase “Christian nationalism,” my mind immediately goes to our Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions, specifically to The Theological Confession of Barmen. In part, here is what is provided as an explanation for the confession:
The Theological Confession of Barmen was written by a group of church leaders in Germany to help Christians withstand the challenges of the Nazi party and of the so-called “German Christians,” a popular movement that saw no conflict between Christianity and the ideals of Hitler’s National Socialism.
In January 1933…Adolf Hitler was named chancellor. By playing on people’s fears of communism…he was able to persuade the Parliament to allow him to rule by edict. As he consolidated his power, Hitler abolished all political rights and democratic processes: police could detain persons in prison without a trial, search private dwellings without a warrant, seize property, censor publications, tap telephones, and forbid meetings. He soon outlawed all political parties except his own, smashed labor unions, purged universities, replaced the judicial system with his own “People’s Court,” initiated a systemic terrorizing of Jews, and obtained the support of church leaders allied with or sympathetic to the German Christians.
Most Germans took the union of Christianity, nationalism, and militarism for granted, and patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. The German Christians exalted the racially pure nation and the rule of Hitler as God’s will for the German people.[i]
Thankfully, there were church leaders who resisted. Numerous church members, university professors, and ordained ministers (including Karl Barth), gathered in Barmen to discuss, debate, and adopt a declaration to appeal to the churches of Germany to reject the false doctrine of the German Christians. The resulting declaration affirms the church’s freedom in Jesus Christ who is Lord of every area of life. It also makes clear that the church is to obey Jesus as God’s one and only Word to determine its order, its ministry, and its relation to the state. [ii]
The relationship between church and state has been an important matter down through the ages. Americans have long valued the separation of church and state. Historically, whenever the church and state have wed, it has been the church that has suffered. Still, history has a way of repeating itself. To shed more light on the topic, allow me to share a portion of an article that appeared in The Presbyterian Outlook in 2019. [iii] It referenced a letter endorsed by Christian representatives from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, The Episcopal Church, and the National Council of Churches—just to name a few. The purpose of the letter was to condemn Christian nationalism. In part, the letter reads:
As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy. Today, we are concerned about a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy — Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy…We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation. As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith. We believe that people of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square; patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions; government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion; religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families; conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion; and we must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad. [iv]
We at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta worship the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not worship our country or its president. While we value our citizenship in the United States of America as well as the Constitution and our national symbols, we do not worship a political party or the flag or the national anthem. Our allegiance is and always must be to Jesus Christ. What unites us is more powerful than ideals or opinions or platforms that separate us. We share a deep faith in Jesus. We long to do the will of Christ by feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger. We have been and will continue to be a place of hope for our community. Sure, we have different political views, but we love one another, we break bread with one another, we support one another in good times and bad. As ambassadors for Christ, we are called to live by a higher standard than other citizens. We seek to follow the way of Jesus, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do we always get it right? Of course not, but day by day, we are learning. We are growing. We are becoming sons and daughters of God who are equipped to lead others into a brighter future for us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Book of Confessions, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 280.
*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission